Black Annis – Leicester’s Own Hag Goddess

To view Black Annis’s eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and her features livid blue,
Glar’d in her visage; whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims embrac’d.

John Heyrick

Black Annis [also called Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes and Cat Anna or Cat Annis] is a blue faced hag who haunts the Dane Hills of Leicestershire in central England. She is very tall with tattered hair and long, yellow or white fangs. Some say that she has only one eye. She lived in a cave called Black Annis’ Bower, which she scraped out of the rock with her own sharp fingernails. In front of the cave was an oak where she hid in order to dash out and ambush lambs and young children who wandered too far from home, drink their blood, eat their flesh and hang their skins up in her cave to dry. She wore a skirt sewn from the skins of her human prey. Children around Leicester used to warn each other not to go out after dark, lest Black Annis should get them!

Until just after the First World War, her bower existed on a small natural outcrop on the Dane Hills, west of the city towards Glenfield. (It now lies under the Dane Hills housing estate.) A secret tunnel was reputed to join it to Leicester Castle. Black Annis also haunts the gateway of the castle, travelling in a secret underground tunnel from the Dane Hills, and sleeping in the castle cellars.

Black Annis is said to be the crone who confronted King Richard III on his way to the nearby  Battle of Bosworth [1585]. His spurs struck a stone pillar on Leicester’s Bow Bridge and the hag declared that it would be his head that hit the post on the way back. After losing the battle, his naked body was thrown across the saddle of a horse and his head, hanging down as low as the stirrups, hit that very stone.[1] A tablet was put on the re-rebuilt bridge in the nineteenth century saying “his head was dashed and broken as a wise-woman had foretold, who before Richard’s going to battle being asked of his success said that where his spur struck his head would be broken”. [2]

Though she may have lost her bower, legends of Black Annis still had the power to frighten people in 1941, when an evacuee related the following story to the folklorist Ruth Tongue. [3] Three children collecting fire-wood began to get frightened as dusk fell, knowing that Black Annis only emerged after dark as ‘daylight would turn her to stone’. Sure enough, they heard a snuffling and, looking through the hole in their witch-stone [a naturally holed stone] saw Black Annis. Dropping their bundles of faggots, they fled as fast as they could. Black Annis stumbled on the dropped sticks, and cut her legs so badly that the blood flowed down them. Mumbling to herself, she caught up with them before their cottage door. Just as she was about to lay her hands on them, their father emerged with his axe, and hit her full in the face with it. She ran off shrieking ‘Blood! Blood!’ but just then the Christmas bells began to peal and she fell down dead.

In Leicester it was rumoured that Black Annis’s howling could be heard as far as five miles away and, when she ground her teeth the sound was so loud that all the people had time to lock and bar their doors. Precautions had to be taken against her attentions, and witch-herbs were tied above the windows to stop her reaching inside and grabbing the babies. This was why Leicester cottages only had one small window. She appeared in a Victorian Melodrama called ‘Black Anna’s Bower, or The Maniac of the Dane Hills’ a tale about the murder of the landlady of ‘The Blue Boar’.

At the Dane Hills every Easter Monday [known as Black Monday] the Mayor and the dignitaries set off for a ‘hare hunt’ at noon. Actually, the object of the hunt was a dead cat, soaked it in aniseed [the cat annis?], and tied it to the tail of a horse for a drag hunt, dragged from the Bower, through Leicester’s streets to the Mayor’s door. In later years, the hunt gave way to an annual event known as the Dane Hills Fair. [4]

Black Annis may be connected with the other crone-like Annies and Annises found throughout Britain, such as the Scottish Gentle Annie (or Gentle Annis). Many hags are described as ‘blue faced’ such as Scotland’s Cailleach Bheur. These hags were once winter goddesses, their faces blue with cold, who brought in the time of cold, dissolution and death. It is likely that Black Annis is a crone aspect of Anu, or Danu, and that the bower was once the cave womb where she was worshipped. Some think she may be a local version of Brighid or Brigantia, or the dark mother goddess who took the souls of human children into her care. The Dane Hills [possibly from Danu] may have been the centre of her cult. If Black Annnis was a winter hag, she would have had a summer form as a lovely maiden which is lost to us. However, her husband may have been Leicester’s Bel [‘Bright’], for whom the bel fires are lit at Beltane (May Day). Bel was a giant who boasted that he could reach Leicester in three large leaps. He mounted his sorrel mare at Mountsorrel and took one leap to Wanlip. The next leap burst the mare’s heart and harness at Birstall and the last leap, which was too much for horse and rider, killed them. They were buried at Belgrave, just north-east of the Dane hills.

Black Annis is the crone goddess who brings the winter; the dark lady holds the souls of the dead in her embrace. However, the wheel turns, and in the spring she transforms into the bright maiden, and her underworld tomb becomes the womb of rebirth. The hag aspect of the goddess presides over the winding down of the year, dissolution, decay and conclusion. One thing must end for another to begin, and the wheel moves on.

© Anna Franklin, The Oracle of the Goddess, Vega, 2003 (illustrated by Paul Mason)

REFERENCES

[1] Arthur Mee, ‘Leicestershire and Rutland’ Hodder & Stoughton 1937

[2] Susan Green ‘Selected Legends of Leicestershire’ Heart of Albion Press

[3] Katharine Briggs: ‘Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives’

[4] C.Hole, ‘Dictionary of Folk Customs’, Paladin, 1986

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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